Fly north from Fairbanks and after a while, you’ll be off the map. Literally, as ER-2 pilot Tim Williams found out Thursday when he flew the NASA aircraft on a mission to the North Pole and back.
“At some point, the map’s not there,” he said at a post-flight debrief Thursday evening.
Williams flew due north along the 150 degrees west longitude line, carrying scientific instruments including MABEL, a laser altimeter that scientists are using to develop software for the upcoming ICESat-2 satellite mission. The goal for the pole-bound trip was to gather data over the spectrum of summer ice – from open water, to degrading ice, to thin ice, to multiyear ice, with some melt ponds on the way.
It was a smooth and cloudy trip up, Williams reported, and through breaks in the clouds he could see cracking ice below.
“I expected it to be a lot more solid; it’s not,” he said. “It doesn’t look thick where I could see it.”
After about four hours in the air he reached the pole – 90 degrees latitude. His instincts were to look at the compass onboard, but it was “just a mess, it’s all over the place,” Williams said. At one point, his compass showed 180 degrees opposite from his navigation system.
Still, he knew which way to go: “When you hit the pole, everything is to the south. So you just make a turn,” Williams said.
He rolled out, circling from the pole, until his navigation system gave him a heading. He found the 140 degree line, and flew back to Fairbanks – headed south.